How to Optimize Taxes When You Tap Your Retirement Accounts

Strategically timing your withdrawals can limit your taxes, maximize your retirement earnings and give you a better chance of not running out of money in retirement.

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Retirement planning is a multifaceted process that requires careful consideration and strategic decision-making. It's not just about how much money you can put aside during your working years, but also how you utilize those funds in your golden years. Efficient saving and strategic withdrawal from various accounts is the key to a financially secure retirement.

Typically, the conventional wisdom suggests a sequential approach to account withdrawal post-retirement, starting with taxable accounts, moving on to tax-deferred accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs and finally dipping into tax-free accounts such as Roth IRAs. This strategy is primarily designed to allow your retirement funds to grow tax-deferred for as long as possible, thus maximizing the overall value of your nest egg.

However, while this approach may seem logical and practical at first glance, it may not always be the most beneficial when optimizing your tax efficiency in the long term. Depending on your financial circumstance, a different approach could potentially save you thousands of dollars in taxes, thereby extending the longevity of your retirement savings.

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The importance of diversifying your money pools

The cornerstone of a robust retirement withdrawal strategy is diversifying your money across different types of accounts. This includes a reserve fund, taxable account (traditional brokerage account), tax-deferred account (401(k) or IRA) and tax-free account (Roth 401(k) or IRA).

A reserve fund provides a safety net and can comprise a savings account, a money market fund or a portfolio of laddered CDs with varying maturities. This fund should ideally generate interest without any associated capital gains, allowing for opportunistic withdrawals that can help mitigate taxes.

A taxable brokerage account, also known as a traditional brokerage account, offers the flexibility of investing in a variety of assets. It provides the advantage of potentially lower tax rates on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.

Tax-deferred accounts like an IRA or a 401(k) are appealing due to their immediate tax break benefits. However, every dollar withdrawn from these accounts may be taxed as income. Over time, these accounts can become a “tax time bomb,” leading to hefty taxes in retirement. Therefore, balancing your savings across different types of accounts is crucial.

Reducing required minimum distributions (RMDs)

RMDs, mandated for those over 73, can significantly increase your tax liability. However, strategic planning can help mitigate this impact.

Drawing down your tax-deferred accounts early in retirement can potentially decrease your RMDs later in life, effectively managing your overall tax liability. A proactive approach here can help in keeping your tax bracket lower.

Funding the early part of your retirement by pulling from your IRA may allow you to defer claiming your Social Security benefits. This can boost your income by 8% for each year of delay, providing an additional layer of inflation protection.

Roth conversions can be a powerful tool in retirement planning. While this incurs a tax liability in the conversion year, it allows for tax-free withdrawals in the future. This strategy can be especially beneficial for retirees with limited taxable income and will also serve to reduce your future RMD requirements.

Leveraging tax-free capital gains

Retirees with limited taxable income can take advantage of tax-free capital gains. As of 2023, you may qualify for zero capital gains tax if your taxable income is $44,625 or less for single filers or $89,250 or less for married couples filing jointly.

Consider a retiree with $1 million in a taxable brokerage account and $1 million in a rollover IRA, requiring $80,000 for living expenses. If all $80,000 is withdrawn from the IRA account, the retiree ends up in the 22% tax bracket. This would not be the most tax-efficient withdrawal strategy.

However, suppose we add a reserve fund of $200,000 to this scenario. She could fund part of her annual income requirement from these assets with no tax consequences. She could then fund a portion of her budgetary needs by pulling no more than $44,625 from her IRA. This would keep her in a relatively low income tax bracket, thus enabling her to sell assets in her brokerage account and still qualify for zero capital gains taxes. By diversifying withdrawals across a reserve fund, the brokerage account and the IRA, the retiree can remain in a low tax bracket, access IRA money at low marginal income tax rates and potentially avoid capital gains taxes.

Planning for retirement is a complex process that involves more than just saving money. It requires a comprehensive strategy considering your income needs, tax implications and overall financial goals. By diversifying your savings and strategically planning your withdrawals, you can maximize your retirement earnings, limit your taxes and enjoy your retirement years without worrying about outliving your assets.

Disclaimer

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Antwone Harris, MBA, CFP®
Chief Planning Strategist, Platinum Bridge Wealth Strategies

Antwone Harris, MBA, CFP®, is a seasoned financial professional with over 20 years of experience helping clients transition from their main careers to the next phase of their lives. As a former VP-Senior Financial Consultant at Charles Schwab Inc., he managed over $890 million in client assets and ranked in the top 5% of more than 1,100 advisers nationwide. His financial expertise has been featured in major media outlets such as CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, The Financial Times and Kiplinger’s. Harris is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and a Retirement Income Certified Professional®, focusing his practice on creating comprehensive plans for individuals approaching or already in retirement. Recognizing the anxiety surrounding retirement preparation, Harris founded Platinum Bridge Wealth Strategies to provide specialized financial planning for those nearing or in retirement.